Great Performances

The weeks between the Golden Globes and Oscar night are filled with awards. But statues or no, these actors are winners

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All the stories have been told, and told the same way so often that most new films seem sequels of themselves. In this age of recycled cinema, what's new? A fresh face, with talent to match--so that seeing, say, Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace is like stumbling into a great blind date. Or a familiar face matched with an appropriate role. The character that Thomas Haden Church plays in Sideways is such a perfect fit, it seems to have been waiting for him like a twin separated at birth.

Acting is the trade with the highest proportion of qualified people to available jobs. Good actors need directors who can envision their brilliant performances before the cameras roll. So Mike Nichols welcomed Clive Owen into the star-studded Closer cast. Mike Leigh built Vera Drake around Imelda Staunton. Clint Eastwood rescued Hilary Swank from whatever-happened-to status.

Movies are machines; actors are people, with gifts to admire and quirks to fall in love with. Here's a handful of talents who deserve notice this Oscar season and whose promise fills the coming film year with a little anticipated joy. --By Richard Corliss

Hilary Swank | Million Dollar Baby

I'd venture that she could take about 80% of the women out there," says Clint Eastwood. He's talking about how Hilary Swank might fare if she were obliged to box for real instead of for the camera, as she triumphantly, tragically does in Eastwood's Oscar-worthy Million Dollar Baby.

"Work ethic" is the phrase that keeps recurring to Eastwood when he talks about his star. To play Maggie Fitzgerald, the lower-class waitress who's all heart turned fighter who's all gristle, Swank gained 19 lbs.--"all muscle," says Eastwood. She worked out five or six hours a day for three months. "That eagerness and persistence is natural to her," says Eastwood. "She brings it to everything she does."

Even, says her husband, actor Chad Lowe, to cleaning out the basement and other chores the laid-back Lowe tends to duck. "She's a perfect combination of drive, fearlessness and humanity," he says. She has had to be, because Swank, 30, grew up in the same sort of trailer-park environment as did Maggie and, for that matter, Teena, the small-town transgendered woman she won an Oscar for playing in 1999's Boys Don't Cry. The difference between them and Swank--and she insists that it's the crucial difference--is that, unlike those characters, she had a supportive mom, who encouraged her dream of escape via acting.

Pursuing that dream took her through the usual forgettable TV work before she landed Boys, as well as some pretty dismal movies after it. That's because there are not many parts for authentically tough little nuts like Swank. In most tough-nut movie roles, actors drop their hard edge after a couple of reels so that we can adore their vulnerability. Swank, in her two great roles, allows us to take her to heart eventually--but it's not quite an unconditional surrender. The wariness, the memories of hard use remain and, in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, steel her (and us) for the devastation of their climaxes.

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